What is Secondary Lymphoedema?

Secondary lymphoedema is a chronic illness that happens when your lymphatic system is damaged by cancer or cancer treatment. Lymphoedema can cause swelling, pain, aching and heaviness, which can affect any part of the body but is most commonly seen in an arm or a leg. 

Understanding how the lymphatic system works and learning the symptoms will help you recognise any changes in your body. It is important to diagnose lymphoedema early to reduce the risk of any of the symptoms getting worse. Most doctors have not heard of this condition and do not know the symptoms, this is why it is important for you to know.

Signs and symptoms of lymphoedema are:

  • Swelling of your arm(s), leg(s) or other body parts.
  • Swelling in the morning that worsens throughout the day.
  • Swelling that persists for more than three months.
  • “Pitting oedema”: pressure to your skin, e.g. with your thumb, leaves an indentation.
  • Clothing and jewellery (especially rings and bracelets) may feel much tighter than usual.
  • Feeling of heaviness or tightness, aching or discomfort.
  • Skin changes such as hard, tight skin (fibrosis), wart-like growths, skin folds.
  • Skin discolouration and reddening.
  • Fluid leaking through the skin. (lymphorrhea)
  • Skin infections, such as cellulitis.
  • Less mobility and range of motion.

The lymphatic system is made up of organs, such as the tonsils, thymus and spleen, and a network of nodes (glands) and vessels, which extend throughout the body. The lymphatic vessels contain fluid called lymph, which is colourless and forms in the tissues of the body. This then drains back into the blood circulation through a network of vessels and nodes.

Lymph nodes act as filters removing dead or abnormal cells, including cancer cells and bacteria, playing an important part in the body's defence against infection. As lymph returns to the circulation, it filters through these nodes draining into larger lymph vessels in the body which join to the main circulation. This constant flow balances the amount of fluid in different parts of the body. The lymphatic system also makes cells called lymphocytes, which help the body fight infections. 

Cancer and cancer treatment can damage these vessels and lymph nodes causing scar tissue. If you picture a river, which has been dammed, the water builds up behind the dam, this is basically what is happening with lymphoedema. The flow of lymph is reduced through the scar tissue and builds up in the surrounding tissues causing the area to swell. 

Unfortunately, most of the underlying causes of lymphoedema are irreversible and there is currently no known cure – however, appropriate treatment can be implemented to reduce the swelling and keep it to a minimum. Check out the blog 'Treatments for Lymphoedema' for more info. 

If you do think you have lymphoedema and you are struggling to get help go to: lymphoedema.org - LSN The lymphoedema support network.